Army Language School
The view from the language school
The Cold War was underway
and military conscription the order of the day. To avoid the Draft and two
years in the infantry, Jeff enlisted for three in the Army Security Agency
(ASA), a communications intelligence outfit. ASA promised a year of language
He was sent to the Army Language School at the Presidio of Monterey set on a high bluff along the California coast. A Slavic language was Jeff’s first choice. That would have meant a posting to Europe, but by the luck of the draw he ended up in the Vietnamese course.
Graduating in late 1962, he shipped out to Southeast Asia. A war was on out there –it was a civil war in Vietnam with America on one side and the Soviet Union on the other. It was then a low intensity conflict still small in scale.
Good Life at the Presidio
#1 During Jeff's tour at the Army Language
School studying Vietnamese, his Albany Academy school mate, Keith Willis AA
'58, arrived at ALS for language training. Although Keith had been two
years ahead at the AA, he and Jeff knew each other well. Keith had commanded Company
E of the cadet battalion. Jeff was in the ranks. It was a crack unit which
won several drill competitions.
At ALS Jeff and Keith pooled their assets and bought a used motorcycle. It gave them great mobility. Undeterred by the lack of a wind screen or goggles, they cruised up and down the California coast. Keith described their travels:
We rode our motorcycle (it was a 650 cc English Matchless, a dirt trail bike that could cruise at 130+ mph) to the Mark Hopkins hotel in San Francisco for a drink, we visited Carmel beach frequently for Frisbee and the celebrated restaurant Nepenthe at Big Sur, and cruised Route 101 and Pacific Coast Highway 1 that ran along the ocean as well.
Other times we made it up to the Golden Gate bridge, across the bay to the Berkeley campus before it became 'famous', and over to the Bay Meadows Race Track in an outlying town.
At 75 mph, it was economy travel. Insurance was $10 a year. We bought the Matchless for $400.
#2 Life at the Army Language School was very pleasant for Jeff and buddies. It was probably the most laid-back post in the US military universe. Plenty of leisure after daily classes as well as on weekends. Though the California coastal waters were chilly, the beach at Carmel across the peninsula was a favorite haunt. Jeff’s good friend in the Vietnamese program, John Buquoi, described an especially memorable afternoon there.
Sunsets and the Ubiquitous Bikinis
I used to sometimes, oft-times during the week, grab a loaf of French bread, some cheese, and a bottle of wine, and climb up into one of the old cypresses at the very top of the beach at Carmel and read Jeffers, Patchen, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti ,and Henry Miller, among others, while enjoying the food and drink. When the bottle was empty, it was time to climb down and head back to the Presidio.
The beach was a great place to catch the sunsets and the ubiquitous bikinis. I was once in the tree when Kim Novak and her girlfriend came up the hill from Gull House, stopped under my tree and said something like, ‘Must be nice up there’ and walked on. I almost fell out of the tree.
#3 As noted, Jeff’s friend from the Albany Academy, Keith Willis, arrived at the Army Language School (ALS) in ’62. He was assigned to a Vietnamese language class several months behind Jeff’s. Off-duty, the two guys hung out as Keith fondly remembered.
California, a Glorious Adventure
Jeff and I bought a used British Matchless motorcycle for $400, a very fast trail bike. We traveled the West Coast highways south to Carmel and Big Sur and north to San Francisco’s Chinatown and the race tracks. At the ALS, we had virtually no money, but the Matchless logged 80 miles per gallon, and the insurance was only $10 a year.
Often the lights didn’t work. It was hard to start and usually had to be pushed. But California in the ‘60s was a glorious adventure for two New York Albanians. There were a lot of laughs.
#4 Keith spent a lot of time with Jeff at the Army Language School. Off-duty, they were usually on their motorcycle heading over to Carmel or north or south along the coast. He had good opportunity to observe Jeff at ALS.
He was always inquiring … about the motorcycle, the racetrack, rock and roll dancing. He was always interested in what guys at the Language School had to say … Bryan, Anderson, Yonowitz, Schlafer, Smith, and Worthington. We did not talk about the weather very much.
#5 The Army Language School of Cold War times was a refugee faculty, particularly from those lands where Communist regimes had come to power. So it was with the faculty of the Vietnamese program under whom Jeff studied. Most had fled Communist North Vietnam and were Catholic in a predominantly Buddhist society.
They Missed Their Homeland
Most of the instructors are Christian.
Mr Nghiem was a Christian, a very good Christian. The instructors were homesick
for their families and the land they loved -- Mr Hiep, the department chair, his
son-in-law Mr Hien, and Mr and Mrs Toan. Mr Thiep, a pilot, had defected with
his Mig from North Vietnam. Even Mr Hoa, the playboy, got tears in his eyes
when he talked the homeland.
#6 Army Language School taught approximately 30 languages to military personnel. The criteria for inclusion in the curriculum were either the language of a Cold War adversary, the language of a Third World country contested by both the USSR and the US, or the language of a close US ally.
In all instances, the language was taught by native speakers, most of them refugees from Cold War adversaries or client states. There were three 10-man sections of Vietnamese as well as a specialized short course for Green Berets.
Most of the Vietnamese teachers at ALS
were from the North and were probably Catholic refugees. They mostly taught the
Northern dialect, which constituted High Vietnamese. The Central and Southern dialects had differences in grammar,
vocabulary, and tones, and the Southern version tended to slur the consonants.
One of the teachers had been a fighter pilot, another a professor, and a third an unusually tall woman (6').
#7 In the fall of ’62 when Keith, a recent grad of the Wharton School, arrived at ALS in the Vietnamese program. He was in a class behind Jeff’s. The two Albany Academy boys hooked up again and bought a motorcycle.
Happy Go Lucky Biker
They’d also ride down the coast to San Jose. Keith said Jeff was a happy go lucky biker, always cruising at high speed, and laughing and smiling.
A fellow lingy they knew in the Chinese program was also a biker on a big old Harley, but was killed in an accident driving his VW Bug.
#8 Not long before Jeff arrived at ALS, the school was in the news as the centerpiece of a spy scandal. One of my Czech instructors from the mid- ‘50s was being blackmailed by Czechoslovak intelligence. The instructor’s fiancée was still in the CSSR.
The top undercover Czech agent in the US solicited his cooperation in exchange for an exit visa for the woman. The instructor went to the FBI and was asked to appear to collaborate until they could make a case for the agent’s diplomatic expulsion. He did so, and it became a front page story in the NYT.
Secretly Somewhere Outside New York
On November 3, 1958, four months after his assignment to the Czech delegation to the UN, M. Nacvalac called secretly somewhere outside New York on Karel Hlasny, an instructor at the Army Language School in Monterey, Calif.
Offering an exit visa for Mr Hlasny’s fiancée, the diplomat was said to have solicited the instructor’s cooperation and established a code for arranging further meetings. When they met again, the diplomat paid Mr Hlasny $600 and gave him specific assignments, showing particular interest in the names of Government employees studying at Monterey, and any ‘character weaknesses’ they may have possessed.
At the next meeting, Mr Hlasny demanded immediate release of his fiancée, who finally arrived in the US in August, 1959. Mr Hlasny had been working in cooperation with the authorities. In view of this, a Government spokesman said, he did not expect any action against the instructor.
#9 From my time at ALS in ’56-’57, the school had grown in size and the teaching methods improved considerably as a ’64 article in the NYT indicated.
More than 2000 Enlisted Men
More than 2000 enlisted men and officers are intensively studying 29 languages at ALS. The teaching is done by more than 500 civil service instructors, some with doctor’s and master’s degrees, each working in his native tongue.
The teaching methods include ‘realia’ rooms, where a group of Vietnamese-language students, for example, goes shopping for groceries, changes money, buys stamps, and pursues other activities under the supervision of instructors.
#10 Vietnamese was not Jeff’s choice at ALS. His preference was for a Slavic language, which would eventually take him to a European posting. It was not to be, as he told his cousin John.
‘Son, We Don’t Flunk People Out of Vietnamese’
Jeff and I got together in San Francisco as he was getting out of the Army in 1964. He told me that when he attended language school in Monterey he had orders to study a European language, but was put into Vietnamese.
He tried to flunk out, but was told, ‘Son, we don’t flunk people out of Vietnamese’.
#11 During the Cold War, I was the first in the family to head to the Army Language School. I was later followed by brother Jeff and our cousin John Sharlet. As military life went, it was great duty. I arrived there in the mid- ‘50s.
There Is Little Saluting or Parading
Monterey, a pleasant, picturesque seafaring town125 miles down the California coast from San Francisco, includes among its 16,000 population two notable linguistic groups: the sardine fisherman who speak Portuguese and the US Army men, who speak in many tongues – Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Albanian, Bulgarian, Czech and many others.
The school began with only 60 students and one language (Japanese) during WWII, but grew until it now has an enrollment of 933, a curriculum of 24 languages, and a faculty of 310.
According to the CO, ‘our big ambition is to make a man speak and understand’. The speaking begins right in the first class. ‘Are you a student?’ a Danish instructor will demand. ‘Ja, jeg er elev’ [Yes, I am a student], the class must learn to answer.
The school bears little resemblance to the usual Army post. ‘It is a college’, says the colonel, ‘not a guardhouse’. There is little saluting or parading, and no required study hours.
#12 By the mid- ‘60s when Jeff attended ALS, renamed the Defense Language Institute or DLI, the school had grown in size and scope.
No English Is Spoken
Located at the Army’s historic Presidio of Monterey CA, DLI, operated by the Department of the Army for all services had its modest beginnings in 1941 as an Army intelligence course in Japanese; it now has five schools across the country.
Of these, the oldest and by far the largest is the branch in Monterey, which trains up to 2500 military personnel a year in 27 languages and 33 dialects in courses that range from a 12-week quickie in Vietnamese to a full 47 weeks in Chinese, Russian, Arabic and some 13 other languages.
Classes run for six hours a day, five days a week, interrupted by a two-week vacation throughout the year. Students are expected to spend three hours or more daily on homework. As at Berlitz, students are totally immersed in the language from the moment they enter class. No English is spoken, and students are assigned pseudonyms by which they are known throughout the course.
For Americans, gaining mastery in Vietnamese is especially hard. As in Chinese, the same word spoken at five or six different pitches has five or six different meanings. Moreover, Vietnamese has three dialects, of which Monterey teaches two: the classic dialect of Hanoi with six tones, and that of Saigon, which has five.
To meet the demands of the war, the institute now offers a 12-week crash program in Vietnamese, in addition to the standard 47-week course. Graduates will have a minimum vocabulary of 1000 words – including all essential military terms. This year, Monterey will graduate 1000 men from its Vietnamese classes, compared with 150 five years ago.
#13 During the Vietnam War, the DLI and its branches turned out thousands of Vietnamese linguists through both full-year and short courses.
20,000 Personnel Studied Vietnamese
At the Presidio of Monterey, the renamed Army Language School expanded rapidly in 1947-48 at the outset of the Cold War. Instructors, including native speakers of more than 30 languages and dialects, were recruited from all over the world. Russian became the largest language program, followed by Chinese, Korean, and German.
During the peak of American involvement in Vietnam (1965-73), the DLI stepped up the pace of language training. While regular language training continued unabated, more than 20,000 service personnel studied Vietnamese through the DLI’s programs, many taking a special 8-week military adviser ‘survival’ course.
#14 When Jeff graduated from the Vietnamese course at the end of ’62, the war in Vietnam was still at a low intensity involving a relatively modest American commitment.
31 Advisors Killed in Action
As of the end of 1962, there were 11,326 US military personnel in South Vietnam, the US Air Force had flown 2,334 combat missions, and 31 military advisers attached to South Vietnamese Army units had been killed in action.
#15 Upon enlisting in ASA, you still had to pass a language aptitude test to qualify for the language school. If the test was passed, you were given a few minutes to choose one of several languages in which there were current openings. Keith Willis describes his experience.
No One Chose Vietnamese
I remember thinking about the language choices for 15 seconds. I really did not think it made any difference. I would say, with some degree of certainty, that Spanish and French were my first two choices, maybe in that order.
Vietnamese was an afterthought because I had never heard of Vietnam and figured that would not matter in their decision. Probably no one put down Vietnamese, so when I did it immediately closed the deal. Funny how things turn out.
#16 Jeff must have talked critically about politics when he was at ALS. He often drove down to Nepenthe at Big Sur, the beautiful restaurant designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright 30 miles south of Carmel.
The waiter who presided on the front terrace was an old Tsarist Russian who went by the name Chaco, and he was always dressed in white Chaco was a character, riding a motorcycle in his beret with his cat. If Jeff hadn’t remarked about politics in his presence, why would Chaco always greet him as ‘Trotsky from the Bronx’.
He doubled as a drink waiter and maintenance man, and he always wore the same uniform – a white shirt, [red] scarf and beret. Evidently he escaped from Russia through Siberia after the war, passing through South America before arriving in the States, and landing at Nepenthe sometime in the 1950s.
It was Chaco who created the Siberia
section on the front terrace, where he peddled White Russian cocktails to
, and would fling their change over the edge if he deemed it less
He wrote adventure stories and poems, always hoping to be published. One poem sent to my grandparents, years after he left, reminisces about their ‘cottage by the sea’ and expresses his longing to see them again.
#17 Jeff and I both made it to the Presidio of Monterey for ALS. I in the dead of a Northeastern winter, and what a pleasant change to arrive in sunny Monterey.
This Doesn’t Seem Like the Army
Arriving at the Presidio late that March day, my travel mates and I quickly shed our heavy army overcoats and beheld rows of well-kept WWII wooden barracks and well-tended lawns amidst shady trees.
Quite improbably, one approached the headquarters building along a path lined with bright flowers. Everything was set high on a bluff overlooking beautiful Monterey Bay.
It was as if we had transferred overnight from a large impersonal state university to the campus of a small elite liberal arts college. In a letter, Jeff wrote, ‘This doesn’t seem like the Army’.
#18 In the summer of ’56 while I was at the Army Language School, my parents brought Jeff and Cousin John out to visit me. John remembered.
It Was Lili St Cyr, the Famous Stripper
That summer your folks took Jeff and me on a trip to Denver, San Francisco, and Monterey to visit you at ALS, as well as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Dallas. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip.
An amusing experience took place in Las Vegas. We went out for dinner and a show. This woman comes on the stage and proceeds to take her clothes off and take a bath! It was Lili St Cyr, the famous stripper. We were both 14 at the time, but I don’t recall discussing the spectacle with Jeff.